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Battlefield Bylines

December 17, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: This is the fog of war, twenty-first century style.

A simulated chemical attack sends reporters scrambling to don their gas masks. These journalists, preparing to accompany U.S. units in any military action in Iraq, are learning to prepare and protect themselves at Quantico Marine Corps base, south of Washington. The gas in a real attack would likely be invisible and odorless.

Some 350 reporters and photographers are learning to cope with it, given military concerns over possible chemical or biological attacks during any war with Iraq.

BYRON PITTS: I think that the journalists who are here walk away with a clear understanding of the physical, emotional, and psychological demands that war will have on the military.

TERENCE SMITH: CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts has covered the conflicts in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and the Persian Gulf.

BYRON PITTS: I think the military walks away with some appreciation that there are some of us who take our jobs seriously, who are respectful of the job that they do, and that we make an effort to be as professional in our job as they are.

TERENCE SMITH: These short courses in war constitute the first time the Pentagon has trained journalists in advance of military action. The only other government training was done during World War II.

SPOKESMAN: What we do is, we’ll go ahead and pop our lid, and go ahead and put it between our legs, and then go ahead and pull out the mask.

TERENCE SMITH: The boot camp has two objectives: To prepare media for the threats of modern warfare, and enhance understanding between the Pentagon and the fourth estate.

On this day, Torie Clark, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, joined reporters on a five-mile tactical road march.

VICTORIA CLARKE: We think it’s in the best interests of everyone — the U.S. military, the American people, the news media — to facilitate as much access as possible. We always have concerns about operational security. We always have concerns about the safety of the people involved, both the military and the journalists. But even with those concerns, we think it’s in everybody’s best interest to facilitate as much as possible.

TERENCE SMITH: Jim Crawley is the military reporter for the San Diego Union Tribune, and has covered the Navy and Marines for eight years in San Diego and overseas.

JIM CRAWLEY: We have to engender some trust, and part of that is doing what we’re doing here to let them know at least we know a little bit about their procedures.

This is kind of a baby step, and like baby steps, you know, it’s a little uncertain. There’s a little wobbly, there’s a little bit of falling down here and there.

TERENCE SMITH: Byron Pitts agreed that before many reporters could tackle actual war coverage, they learned they had to get in shape.

BYRON PITTS: It was definitely more rigorous than I thought.

I mean, I spent the last several weeks, I thought, getting in shape for this, going on five-mile walks and jogging three miles a day.

I was not prepared physically for the demands of what these men and women do every day. We were with a sergeant, for instance, who, when he goes into battle, carries 80 to 120 pounds worth of equipment, walks eight miles a day. And so I was struck by the level of physical conditioning we’ll need to keep pace.

TERENCE SMITH: Julie Jacobson is a staff photographer for the Associated Press, based in San Francisco. She’s new to battlefield reporting and wants to know what to expect.

JULIE JACOBSON: We went to the gas chamber yesterday. When I first walked in, you know, I checked my seal before going in, but I walked in, and I could… I inhaled some, somehow some got through.

But they had trained you how to clear your mask before that. You know, my throat was kind of burning, and my eyes were burning a little bit. And as soon as I cleared my mask, it started to get better.

That kind of gives you a little bit of confidence in the equipment and confidence in yourself — getting it off and on, keeping your eyes closed, and you’re holding your breath. You know, it’s good to know how to do that.

TERENCE SMITH: Before training in chemical, nuclear, and biological protection at Quantico, sixty reporters spent a week off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, aboard the U.S.S. Iwo Jima.

Navy personnel trained them on how to evacuate casualties, and familiarized them with vessels they might be aboard during a war.

Many news organizations are also paying private companies, like the British firm AKE Limited, to train their people. Hundreds of journalists are now training in sessions in Wales and in the United States.

TERENCE SMITH: While many reporters expect to be embedded with troops, covering the war from inside a combat unit, they still worry whether they will have true access to hard information about how the battle is being waged.

JULIE JACOBSON: I think I would have preferred that we played a little more media with the military, as opposed to just playing Marine.

BYRON PITTS: I think most of us remain skeptical that we’ll have the kind of access that journalists would like to have. I mean, I think at the end of the day, the bottom line remains the same.

It will be their job to try and win the war, period, and our job to cover the war, period.

And those two things will remain in conflict.

TERENCE SMITH: That conflict is nothing new.

During Vietnam, journalists had nearly unfettered access to the battlefield.

The result: Searing appraisals of a misconstrued war effort. Daily military briefings in Saigon, infamous for their lack of information, were derisively dubbed the “5:00 Follies.”

U.S. MILITARY SPOKESMAN: No comment. Nothing further to say.

TERENCE SMITH: The experience of Vietnam led to tight restrictions on media access during subsequent actions in Panama, Grenada, and the Persian Gulf.

Media pools accompanied troops on some missions during the Gulf War, but the bulk of journalists had to subsist on briefings at bases in Saudi Arabia.

This longstanding tension between the military and the media led to the formation of a new organization, Military Reporters and Editors, which held its first conference recently in Washington.

Correspondent Arthur Kent covered the Gulf War for NBC News. He is now a History Channel host and independent film producer.

ARTHUR KENT: The world media is going to be there. Penetration of Iraq will occur outside of U.S. Military control.

It’s time to recognize that there are big boys and girls in the newspaper, television, radio businesses in America that deserve to be treated as Ernie Pyle was, as Cronkite and Murrow were, as many of our correspondents in Vietnam, allowed inside and working with preparation, and in many cases with superior battlefield experience to many of the young men and women service people.

You know, we’ve got to get out there. It’s part of American democracy.

SPOKESMAN: Media, stop right here, please.

TERENCE SMITH: Reporters respect and agree on the absolute need to preserve operational security. But they also know that gaining access can be an uphill battle, since the public often sides with the needs of the military, not the media.

Time Magazine’s national security correspondent, Mark Thompson:

MARK THOMPSON: I think it’s really a bad thing. I think the press going into Iraq, coming out of Afghanistan, needs to realize that everything in Washington is a triangle.

It’s always two against one. And when we are the buffoon of jokes on Saturday Night Live, and on the other side is the military and is the public — and the public, make no mistake about it, is very, very nervous and anxious — we are going to be on the short end of the stick.

TERENCE SMITH: The Pentagon’s Torie Clarke says the administration sees the benefit of having reporters serving as “witnesses to history,” and is trying to improve access.

VICTORIA CLARKE: One of the problems with the Persian Gulf War was there was a lot of access facilitated, but it was very hard for journalists to get their product out. So one of the things we’re focused on very intently in our contingency planning — because no decision has been made — is how do we make sure people can get the product out.

TOM RICKS, The Washington Post: We’ve had a Pentagon — under Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Torie Clark, that talks a lot, but we haven’t really seen a lot of action.

They talk about access. You don’t get a lot of access.

TERENCE SMITH: Tom Ricks is a veteran military correspondent for the Washington Post. He says the most recent war in Afghanistan is a good example of access denied.

TOM RICKS: The national media pool was designed to go in in a sensitive moment when people couldn’t be told publicly.

All you would be told is, a bunch of reporters, pre-chosen and pre-designated, would show up at Andrews Air Force Base, wouldn’t even be told where they’re going, and then they would fly and cover the sensitive action.

And this was to fulfill the American principle that when American troops go into battle, those actions are covered.

TERENCE SMITH: Torie Clarke:

VICTORIA CLARKE: The best thing you can do is look at experience, and over the last two years, there has been more access to the senior military and senior civilian leadership than any previous time in history.

TERENCE SMITH: But Ricks says quality, not quantity, of briefings is the issue, and that access to real information is scarce.

TOM RICKS: What you have is a defense secretary who really holds release of information very closely.

You have a commander-in-chief of the region, Tommy Franks, who also really seems reluctant to engage with the media. So there’s a general chilling of the military relationship with the media right now.

TERENCE SMITH: Jim Crawley of the San Diego Union-Tribune says information may flow a bit more freely in the field.

JIM CRAWLEY: It’s all about personal relationships, and if they trust you, they will give you access or more access. If they don’t trust you, whether that’s coming from on top or from actions that we do as journalists, they’re not going to trust you, they’re not going to give you the access.

TERENCE SMITH: Regardless, the journalists at Quantico believe that their coverage will ultimately prove important. Julie Jacobson:

JULIE JACOBSON: I don’t know how many stories you read in the paper, or you, you know, just hear sound bites on television, and you don’t really know who that fifth person was that died, or who those, you know, people were who got gassed.

You start showing that stuff, and yeah, you know, you don’t want to wake up to that over your Cheerios in the morning. But, you know, sometimes, it’s… you know, you do need to show people that.

SPOKESPERSON: Everybody okay?

TERENCE SMITH: How much the press would be able to know and show of any possible war with Iraq is the battle that’s being waged now.